Some people think I am unfair to Cornel West when I refer to him as an over-praised, over-paid academic airhead. I always try to see the other side in disagreements like this, but I have a real problem with this one. Here it is.
Back in the Sixties, I knew a Berkeley radical named Bob Avakian. Avakian was the son of an Eisenhower Republican judge named Spurgeon Avakian until one day he made a name for himself, while embarrassing his dad, by climbing a flagpole during the Vietnam protests and pulling down an American flag. He was given thirty days for flag desecration. This was radical stuff in those days and, as I have recently learned, somewhat embellished. Avakian concedes in his recent autobiography that someone else actually pulled the flag from the flagpole at the Oakland County Courthouse where Black Panther leader, murderer and rapist, Huey Newton was on trial, and Avakian merely was the one caught holding it.
Avakian was a Maoist and I had the displeasure of confronting him once, in the days when I was still a radical. Our encounter took place in the Black Panther Party headquarters on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley and was over an editorial he had written in the Black Panther paper about an island in the Ussuri River that both China and Russia were claiming. His editorial demanded that the left support Communist China’s “righteous claim” to Chen Pao Island (the Russians had given it a Russian name. It was my opinion that supporting these squalid territorial claims was actually a disservice to the left. I would have had the same attitude if Avakian had supported the Russians.) What I discovered in the course of our discussion was that Avakian had in effect copied the editorial from Peking Review and was himself ignorant of the historical background to the Sino-Soviet dispute and uninterested in its political ramifications. I left the conversation thoroughly depressed about the shallowness of the movement of which I was still unhappily a part.
Avakian went on to greater things, specifically to found the “Revolutionary Communist Party, USA” and become a Mao impersonator himself, requiring his minions refer to him as "Chairman Bob." He also got himself an arrest warrant in 1979 by leading a violent demonstration against a visit by Mao's successor Deng Xiapoing whom Chairman Bob regarded as a revolutionary sell-out. Avakian’s protesters chanted “Mao Zedong did not fail, revolution will prevail.” Rather than serve a sentence, Avakian fled the country and for the last three decades (less a few years) has lived in what he self-adoringly calls "political exile" in France.
During that time, Chairman Bob has produced an impressive array of books with equally impressive titles:
The Loss In China and the Revolutionary Legacy of Mao Tse-Tung
Mao Tse-Tung’s Immortal Contributions
Conquer the World? The International Proletariat Must and Will
For a Harvest of Dragons: On the ‘Crisis of Marxism’ and the Power of Marxism, Now More Than Ever
A Horrible End, or an End to the Horror?
Democracy, Can’t We Do Better Than That?
The End of Stage, the Beginning of a New Stage
Radical Ruptures, or Yes, Mao More Than Ever
Phony Communism is Dead…Long Live Real Revolution!
But the title that caught my eye and brings me to my problem with Cornel West, was From Ike to Mao and Beyond, Avakian’s autobiography published in 2005. The autobiography comes with a Preface by one Lenny Wolff, who explains that he “helped to interview Bob for this work,” and also that he is himself “a communist revolutionary…who considers Bob Avakian’s insights and body of work to be on the level of a Lenin or Mao.” Wolff also explains the origins of the book: “A short time back, Cornel West, speaking to the important role of Bob Avakian has played in the fight against white supremacy and in relation to the quest for a radically different world, suggested to Bob that he think about a memoir of his life so far.” Of course this is only Lenny Wolff talking, but there on the cover is the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion at Princeton University’s very own testimony: “Bob Avakian is a long distance runner in the freedom struggle against imperialism, racism and capitalism. His voice and witness are indispensable in our efforts to enhance the wretched of the earth. And his powerful story of commitment is timely.” Yes, and Cornel West is not a bloviating pea brain?
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